That Last Speech

OK, so we had to get to it sooner or later.  You know what I’m talking about.

unless, of course, you haven’t read the bloody TITLE of today’s entry… if that’s the case, go ahead, check it out… don’t worry, I’ll wait….  got it?  great…. where was I?

I’m talking about that final speech by Kate in The Taming of the Shrew.  You know the one.  The one where she basically spouts 44 lines of anti-feminist, male chauvinistic ideology, shoving a sexist reading of the Elizabethan worldview down the gullets of unsuspecting and incredibly sponge-like young students all over the (English-speaking and -reading) globe.

The wooing scene, which we hit yesterday, is crazy fun.  There’s very little that can be considered misogyny in it.  There’s really not much of it in this speech, either, but this speech comes after the so-called “taming” so I understand that secret hope harbored by some that Petruchio gets some kind of comeuppance in the speech.  But that doesn’t happen.

or does it?  oooooooh, foreshadowing, anyone?]

This is a tough speech… in the three plays we’ve read thus far, I’m not sure there’s one more complex and open-ended than this.  So caveat emptor: the following interpretation is just one Average Joe Bill’s opinion.

Petruchio calls on Kate to bring in the froward wives and “tell these headstrong women \\ What duty they do owe their lords and husbands” (V.ii.136-137).  When the widow complains, Petruchio has Kate begin with her (presumably to speak to Bianca later in the speech).  So let’s break the speech down to component parts, by audience.

Part One: To the Widow

Fie, fie! unknit that threatening unkind brow,
And dart not scornful glances from those eyes
To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor.

— V.ii.142-144

These first three lines have wonderful stage direction for the actress playing the Widow.  She should be drilling holes into Hortensio, who has not spoken a word in her presence since his semi-bawdy, semi-sexist “That’s my office” response (V.ii.36) to Petruchio’s statement and backing in wager of “(his) Kate does put (the Widow) down” (V.ii.35).  And he certainly doesn’t come to her verbal aid when Petruchio orders Kate to chastise her.  Kate outlines the husband’s role (as lord, king, governor), but in a much stronger fashion: the line is filled with multiple spondee feet, so that not only is LORD, KING, and GOV are stressed but also the THY’s that precede each noun.

 ~    \   ~   \    ~     \   -~-  \  ~     \
Fie, fie! unknit that threatening unkind brow,
~   \    ~    \   ~    \  ~    \    ~    \
And dart not scornful glances from those eyes
~   \    \   \     \   \     \   \ ~  \
To wound thy lord, thy king, thy governor.

Kate might as well be jabbing her finger into the widow’s chest, given how strong the line is stressed.  Notice that she used “lord” first.  This furthers the notion of her compliance to Petruchio, since that notice was part of his prompt.

It blots thy beauty as frosts do bite the meads,
Confounds thy fame as whirlwinds shake fair buds,
And in no sense is meet or amiable.
A woman mov'd is like a fountain troubled-
Muddy, ill-seeming, thick, bereft of beauty;
And while it is so, none so dry or thirsty
Will deign to sip or touch one drop of it.

— V.ii.145-151

Kate then takes the next two sentences to point to the effect of shrewishness on the widow; it’s a backhanded insult: You’re a beauty, but you’re a Grade-A biyotch… and that makes you (artificially) ugly.  Shrewishness makes a woman like muddy water, so fouled that even a parched man will not touch a drop.  Interesting that she uses this argument of (self-) deprivation food or drink… it’s the exact method Petruchio used with Kate.

Part Two: To Bianca

Kate then turns her attention to Bianca, and gives her some sisterly advice:

Thy husband is thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,
Thy head, thy sovereign;

— V.ii.152-153

As she moves from Widow to her sister, she repeats the role of the husband (keeper, head, sovereign), but here she takes on a more moderate line of argument.  Here, the main concepts here are the roles of the husband, not what belongs to him.  Note, too, the inclusion of “life” and “head”: we experience “life” through our body, we understand it through our “head,” a part of a body, a body made of flesh… it’s as if she’s making a reference to Genesis 2:24:

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

Kate then focuses on what those roles of the husband really mean, his responsibilities:

... one that cares for thee,
And for thy maintenance commits his body
To painful labour both by sea and land,
To watch the night in storms, the day in cold,

— V.ii.153-156

He must “care” for the wife.  He must “commit his body \\ To painful labour.” He must keep “watch.”  All those are fairly clear.  But the “thy maintenance” part?  Not as clear.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0], one of the meanings of “maintenance” in Shakespeare’s day was “bearing, deportment, demeanour, behaviour” (OED), so Kate could be saying that husband will care and work only if the wife exhibits the correct demeanor or behavior.  That definition runs counter to what we expect from the word “maintenance,” which is the more modern meaning: “The action of upholding or keeping in being (a cause, right, state of things, government, etc.); the state or fact of being upheld or sustained; that which upholds, means of sustentation” (OED).  Both meanings were in use during Shakespeare’s time, so Kate could be saying that the husband must care and work to sustain and maintain the wife’s lifestyle.  But we cannot count on it, given what follows:

Whilst thou liest warm at home, secure and safe;
And craves no other tribute at thy hands
But love, fair looks, and true obedience-
Too little payment for so great a debt.

— V.ii.157-160

Women have it good, Kate tells us–warm, secure and safe.  And while this state could be the one to be maintained, the real gist of what Kate is arguing here is that for that comfort, a wife owns the husband love, loving looks, and loving responsiveness.

Part Three: To Petruchio

Kate has chastised the Widow, and counseled the sister.  But her speech is not complete.  I see the next section spoken to Petruchio himself.  If the wife is subject to the husband, she says, the husband is subject to the prince.  They are an analog to each other.

Such duty as the subject owes the prince,
Even such a woman oweth to her husband;

— V.ii.161-162

In the words of Dylan, “You Gotta Serve Somebody.”  And in the words of Kate, there is a right way and a wrong way to give that service:

And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?

— V.ii.163-166

This is especially interesting diction, given that one of the meanings of “foul” at the time was “criminal” (OED).  Kate is further connecting the legal connection between subject/lord and wife/husband… and given her “body”/”head” statement, could she be extending the law of man (the legally binding marriage contract) to the law of God as well?

Neither froward, peevish, sullen, sour or disobedient should this service be, because if the service is done in such a way, the subject is a rebel and a graceless traitor.

And it is here where Kate begins to drive home the concept of the husband’s responsibility.  Not only must the husband provide care and maintenance, but when the man demands obedience, it must be an extension of “honest will.”  For the Elizabethans, “honest” could mean many things:

  • of things, conditions, actions, etc.: Worthy of honour, honourable, commendable; bringing honour, creditable
  • free from disgrace or reproach; respectable, decent, seemly, befitting, becoming.
  • of persons: Having honourable motives or principles; marked by uprightness or probity
  • sincere, truthful, candid; that will not lie, cheat, or steal

(all OED; emphases mine)

As could “will”:

  • desire, wish, longing; liking, inclination, disposition
  • an inclination to do something, as contrasted with power or opportunity
  • carnal desire or appetite
  • a desire or wish as expressed in a request
  • volition
  • intention, intent, purpose

(all OED; emphases mine)

And here, she lets Petruchio know that, yes, she will be obedient (as any lover should), but only —ONLY— if his commands are REQUESTS, and not only coming from honorable motives, but also respectable and decent.  In other words, while his starving of her might be seen as permissible by some (men) — socializing her being an honorable motive — it would not be an extension of honest will as it was neither decent nor seemly… and it certainly wasn’t a request.  Here, she begins to set the terms for what is “loving.”  She is taking control.

Part Four: To All

I see the next section spoken to all in attendance, maybe even to us in the audience.

I am asham'd that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace;
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway,
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.
Why are our bodies soft and weak and smooth,
Unapt to toil and trouble in the world,
But that our soft conditions and our hearts
Should well agree with our external parts?

— V.ii.167-174

I think this is where, for some, the train jumps the tracks.  The section doesn’t seem to fit with what comes before.  This seems more of a complete capitulation than a sense of growing strength and partnership.  It feels overblown.  And this may be the point; this is the response expected of the gathered guests (primarily men).  She’s playing to the crowd, but she isn’t serious.  She tips her hand by the sudden introduction of rhyme into her speech (sway/obey; hearts/parts).  Until this section, there had been no rhyme at all; now there is… a difference in style means a difference in tone, and therefore in meaning.

Part Five: To Bianca and Widow

For the next nine lines, she returns her attention to the newlywed wives:

Come, come, you forward and unable worms!
My mind hath been as big as one of yours,
My heart as great, my reason haply more,
To bandy word for word and frown for frown;
But now I see our lances are but straws,
Our strength as weak, our weakness past compare,
That seeming to be most which we indeed least are.
Then vail your stomachs, for it is no boot,
And place your hands below your husband's foot;

— V.ii.175-183

She calls them worms; and while this can mean a low life form (the “earthworm” [OED]), it can also mean “a serpent, snake, dragon” (OED).  This hint of a Garden of Eden reference recalls the Genesis vibe from earlier in the speech.  Then she begins to tie everything together… well, maybe not everything: just the opposites:

  • heart / reason (emotion/thought)
  • word / frown (concepts/actions)
  • lances / straws (weapon = destruction/building material [think thatched roofs] = creation)
  • strength / weakness
  • most / least
  • hand / foot

What’s implicit here, but not said aloud, is man / woman.  That’s a message that is the same for both the men and women in the audience.  What’s open for interpretation, though, are those last two lines.  Both vail and stomach have multiple meanings (of course)… vail can mean “to be of use” or  “to lower in sign of submission” (both OED), while stomach can mean

  • spirit, courage
  • obstinacy, stubbornness
  • anger, irritation, malice
  • but was also
  • used (like ‘heart’, ‘bosom’, ‘breast’) to designate the inward seat of passion, emotion, secret thoughts, affections, or feelings

(all OED).

So for the women, “vail your stomachs” could mean “use your spirit and courage”… but any man overhearing could (and probably would) interpret it as a call for women to “lower in submission her stubbornness.”  Again, the use of rhyming couplets (yours/more, compare/are, boot/foot) continues the false sense of sincerity, allowing the men to hear the speech their way (the words) and the women theirs (the concepts behind the words).

Is this Shakespeare positing the innate female superiority when it comes to decoding emotional meaning in verbal and non-verbal communication?

While the men can see her placing her hand beneath his foot an act of submission, the women can see it as helping the man rise to heights he could not achieve without her help or strength.  Everyone wins.  The men get to revel in un-stubborn wives; the wives can rest, assured of their strength and their place next to, not behind, their husbands.

It’s really a statement of equality.

Part Six: To Petruchio (maybe)

The final rhyming couplet, I think, goes back to Petruchio.

In token of which duty, if he please,
My hand is ready, may it do him ease.

— V.ii.184-185

The question is then, Does Petruchio “get” it?  Does he understand the joke?  Does he realize she’s speaking in doubled meanings?  And if he does, does he call her on it?

The answer is:


His response is, “Why there’s a wench! Come on and kiss me, Kate!” (V.ii.186).  Of course, “wench” has multiple meanings including “sweetheart” and “serving-maid” (both OED).  Which is he meaning?  We cannot be sure.  While the “kiss me, Kate” would point to a sweetheart interpretation, it could just be an order, a command to be complied with by a servant.  It would all be in the hands of the director and actor.

How do I see it?  In an over-the-top, fever dream of a drunken and horny Christopher Sly, I’d say he doesn’t get it (of course, in such a version, the speech would probably be played straight as pure capitulation).  However, in a more thoughtful take, one in which Petruchio understands what he’s doing in terms of falconry, and understands that he’s breaking her down IN ORDER TO make her stronger, I think he does get it.  And I think the REQUEST for a kiss is one of joy and knowledge and partnership.

What do you think?

2 Replies to “That Last Speech”

  1. I love this interpretation, Bill! And I’ve read quite a few over the years.
    So thanks a lot. Now I know how I can perform it in a little summer event we have in the Huon Valley, Tasmania, called ‘Shakespeare on the Huon’, where locals and visitors are invited to come and perform (or just watch others perform) favourite Shakespearean speeches and exchanges.
    One evening each week in January members of Huon Valley Theatre Inc and selected guests act in the open air on the bank of our beautiful river, wearing costumes and taking accessories and props from the witches’ cauldron – all from our nearby wardrobe, props and sets shed. And we encourage members of the audience from 8 to 80 (and beyond) to join in.
    NB I’ll mention your website when I introduce my choice.
    PS We never quite know what the show will contain each week, except that at the end I always perform the Epilogue from AYLI, with a few modifications considering that it’s being delivered by a 78 year old woman!

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